“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
We have a lot of weeds in Hawai’i. Since the islands were so isolated prior to human contact, introduced species had an evolutionary leg up. They could adapt more easily to the rapidly changing landscape that human colonization contributes to and proliferate at a faster rate. Today, invasive species cover most of the landscape of Hawai’i and can present some real challenges. Anyone who has ever had to deal with Guinea grass or Albizia trees knows what I’m talking about.
Most of the time we look at these weedy, invasive species as if they were a major problem that requires a huge amount of labor or poisonous chemicals to eradicate. But as a Permaculture practitioner and fan of efficiency, I like to use the principle of “The Problem Is The Solution”. Often times this means shifting your perspective to solve a problem in a way that uses less effort (and often solves other problems simultaneously) by looking at waste as a resource. For example, what if we looked at weeds and invasive species as a potential source of food, fiber, and fuel?
Many of the plants that are weeds in our gardens and landscapes are not only edible, but highly nutritious and even medicinal. It makes sense that plants that are so hardy they can thrive almost anywhere on earth would also contain critical nutrients. Dandelion, for example, grows in pretty much any climate except maybe Antarctica. All parts of the dandelion are edible and the roots have been used as a treatment for everything from liver issues to cancer.
So what if instead of spending countless hours pulling “weeds” or spraying them with noxious chemicals, we looked at it as harvesting our food and medicine? It really changes your perspective and your relationship to nature when you can see the virtues in any plant. We stop thinking about our environments as something we can ultimately control to better serve ourselves and start seeing ourselves as intrinsically connected to a vastly interdependent web of life. This, in turn, has major benefits for our physical, mental and emotional health. It also opens you up to lots of opportunities to try tasty new foods! Not to mention, weeds are also free! Looking for a way to eat more fresh foods without breaking the bank at the farmers market or organic grocery store? Well, here you go!
I’d like to introduce you to some of the amazing edible “weeds” you probably have in your backyard. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to try some of these recipes and experience the unique flavors and exceptional nutrition of wild foods!
First on our list is Amaranth. This plant grows all over the world and has been cultivated into many different varieties used for their colorful, flavorful leaves and seeds. Wild amaranth is highly nutritious. Its leaves are a great source of fiber and the seeds can be prepared like rice or quinoa. The grain is a great source of protein, dietary fiber, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, folate, and several other minerals.
The leaves are tasty as stir fry greens and the seeds, though timeconsuming to collect are delicious when cooked as a grain.
Bacopa, also known as aeae, is a native ground cover that grows in wet areas. It can handle both hot sun and deep shade while tolerating quite a bit of salt as well. Bacopa is also a potent herb used in many ayurvedic remedies. It has shown to be beneficial for a variety of purposes, including improving memory, reducing anxiety, and treating epilepsy. Research also shows that it may boost brain function and alleviate anxiety and stress, among other benefits. It can be made into tea or eaten fresh in salads.
All parts of dandelions are edible. The roots are also a potent anti inflammatory, blood sugar regulator, and liver support herb. It’s great as a tea, though a bit bitter, adding a little honey helps. The leaves and flowers are a great addition to salads and stir frys. Stay tuned for a follow-up blog with a delicious receipe for Dandelion Fritters!
Gotu kola is another common weed that grows in most people’s lawns. It likes wetter spots but can grow in both sun and shade. Gotu kola is known for being great for brain function and it also has been used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimers. It’s delicious in salads and great in pesto.
Grass! It’s not just for cows! Did you know that many of our staple foods are actually grasses? Wheat, barley, oats, and rice are all just the seeds of grass species and what we call grains. There are many more varieties of edible grass grains than we realize and many of them are even considered invasive species, guinea grass is a good example. The ripe seed heads of guinea grass can be harvested and eaten raw, just make sure they are green and not black, brown or purple with fungus. They can also be harvested and roasted lightly in the oven and have a nice flavor like roasted peanuts. It might take you a while to collect enough seeds to grind into flour and bake something, but theoretically, you could! The scientific name for guinea grass, Panicum maximum, actually means “big bread”!
Most people in Hawaii think of hilahila as a plain nuisance. It grows in your lawn and stabs you with its thorns when you walk barefoot through your yard. But to many people Hilahila (also known as Mimosa pudica) is a rare wonder and subject of much interest. I have even seen it growing in botanical gardens in both Los Angeles and New York! Its sensitive leaves that curl up when touched are the main fascination with this plant. It has even been the subject of multiple studies that are questioning the nature of what consciousness is and whether plants are, in fact, conscious.
But did you know you can also eat it? The pretty, little, fluffy, pink flowers are a really cute way to pretty up a salad and picking them means less seeds, less hilahila in your yard! The seeds have also recently been proven to be a powerful gastrointestinal support herb and are being marketed as a supplement. If anyone in Hawaii wanted to try an easy to grow cash crop, Hilahila farming might be a new thing!
Another very common weed probably growing in your yard is Honohono grass or Commelina diffusa. The young leaves and flowers are tasty in salads and the young stems can be stir-fried. Or try this awesome honohono grass ice cream recipe from Eating In Public !
Plantain, also known as Laukahi in Hawaii, grows all over the planet and has adapted to most climates. This incredibly common herb is a best friend of hikers as its leaves, when crushed, make a great on trail ointment or compress for cuts and scrapes. Growing up, we used to take the long seed stems and twist them around to pop off the seed head like a toy gun. Although this plant is known to most the world over, few people value it for its edible qualities. Though the leaves are quite bitter raw, steaming or blanching them makes them palatable. The seeds can be used as a garnish as well!
Purslane is another common plant in yards and gardens. You might mistake it for a succulent with its thick leaves and stems. There is a native variety of purslane known as ihi and many other varieties have been introduced. All parts of this plant are edible, from its pretty yellow flowers to the crunchy, succulent leaves. Purslane is delicious raw, in salads and is high in omega fatty acids.
Last on our list is a local favorite, Strawberry Guava. This plant covers huge areas of forest from mauka to makai on Kaua’i. Its tasty red or yellow fruits are plentiful through the fall and spring but can fruit at other times of the year depending on microclimate as well. Though you can eat the delicious fruit right off the tree you can also use the wood to cook with or to smoke meat. It adds a delightful fruity flavor. My favorite way to use strawberry guava is to make jelly, a sweet, tart, treat that’s high in vitamin C.
Written by Zoli, Senior Landscape Designer and Certified Arborist